5 Unwritten Rules of the Workplace (According to Men)

Published: Mar 08, 2011

 Workplace Issues       

Ever wonder what men really think of the women they work with?

"We don't realize it, but when we work with men, it's kind of like working with a foreign culture," author Shaunti Feldhahn explains. "If you're going to Paris or Brazil or France, you're going to be far more effective if you understand how what you do and say is going to be perceived."

The Male FactorShe should know; Feldhahn's book, The Male Factor: The Unwritten Rules, Misperceptions, and Secret Beliefs of Men in the Workplace, surveys hundreds of men on their private prejudices, bad experiences, and wish lists with the women they work with, and involved a nine year—and counting—interview process.

Both through the polls and Feldhahn's own interviews with hundreds of men in corporate, The Male Factor presents fascinating findings about how men perceive women's behavior in the office—and how, without our knowledge of it, those perceptions may be holding women back from leadership roles or better on-the-job relationships.

"To the degree you're working with men, you're working with internal, unspoken, unseen unwritten male culture," Feldhahn says. And while you may not choose to do anything different, "it's going to be in your best interests if you at least know what that is," she says.

Here's a look at where men and woman differ in their workplace modi operandi:

1. There's a "Work World" and a  "Personal World"

Ever wonder why men never seem to cry at work? They've checked their emotions in "personal world."

"The male brain, when we talk about it being compartmentalized, automatically tends to segregate things into where they view a certain area as functioning one way, and other areas functioning in another way," Feldhahn says. Thus, when men arrive at work, they shift gears to adhere to what they perceive are different rules for "work planet."

Women, on the other hand, tend to view work and personal lives as parts of the same whole. "Our brain is wired to view everything wrapped up; we don't view these two worlds, we view one big thing called life," Feldhahn says. "Most women technically, biologically—about 87% of them--just don't have that mental segregation."

But men, viewing things from their compartmentalizing brains, don't understand that difference—and often interpret women's holistic way of operating as unprofessional or weak. "Basically, what I heard a lot of the time was, "Well, she's a really good utility player, but not so much leadership material,"" Feldhahn says. "That kind of comment, when I dug into it, was indicative only of the fact that they didn't see her functioning by the rules of the work world."

2. No Crying In Baseball

According to Feldhahn, the main distinction men make between their emotions and women's in a work setting work is that "we can choose not to show them. But we do actually have them."

Feldhahn jokes that this is an unfair advantage ("I really don't know what that feels like, and I wish I did," she says), but in reality, it can be a challenge.

Feldhahn notes that in order to work more efficiently, the men she surveyed prefer to keep emotions out of the workplace. "But what that means is that if they can't think clearly when they're processing emotion," Feldhahn explains, "they look at you, as a woman, getting emotional and they assume you're not thinking clearly either. And that's quite damaging to us as women, because it's completely inaccurate."

And "emotional" doesn't just mean crying--Feldhahn relates a story from a man she was interviewing told about a female colleague who got quiet during a difficult meeting. "The partner was telling me later, "I was so bummed [that] I couldn't trust her judgment of the whole meeting,"" Feldhahn relates. "I think I actually just said, "What?!""

"That's really one of the main, overall pieces of the puzzle that we women have to understand about how men view emotion—because it's really true, and it's not just a preference: they think they presence of emotion, by definition, means that logic has ceased. That's not accurate, when it comes to women, but it is often accurate for them as men. So this is a clear disconnect. "

3. Keep the Office an Ego-Safe Zone

Everyone wants to be easy to work with, but when it comes to men, comfort level is dependent on mojo-protection.

"It was shocking to me to see these very strong, with it, competent, confident looking men—that it's really just a surface," Feldhahn recalls from the men she's interviewed. "Underneath that surface, they have a lot of private self doubt."

"There are situations in which it's difficult for them to take their personal feelings out of it—we just don't necessarily see it. Basically, if we're unintentionally triggering an underground, beneath the surface sense of insecurity or sense of self-doubt that is running beneath the surface in all men, that we don't know is there. Men look very confident; we think of the male ego as being a very big factor. And what we don't realize is the male ego is a sham; it's a surface, it's a front, that men put up to protect the fact that on the inside, they have a lot of self doubt and they're basically saying, I want to tackle a challenge, I want to do great things, but I'm really not sure that I know what I'm doing and I hope nobody finds out." It's odd—we as women have our insecurities, but generally, that's not one of them."

Feldhahn says that all those little customs for showing respect that have evolved in the business world are a preferred "mode of operation" for men for this reason. This all looks like strange, secret handshake type of behavior to the average woman—but without understanding it, "you can hit that nerve without having any idea that's what you're doing," Feldhahn warns.

For example, "Why did you do this?" is a question that two-thirds of men Feldhahn surveyed think means "my colleague is questioning my judgment."

The alternative "Help me understand your thought process here" comes across as more respectful—and gets you an answer, minus an angry coworker.

Of course, Feldhahn grants that you don't have to change your style to suit the men you work with, "but if you know how it's going to be perceived and you have to do some clean up later, you'll be aware of that," she says.

4. The Devil's in the Details

Aside from avoiding pitfalls, there are a few adjustments a woman can make to increase her effectiveness while working with and managing men, and expand her influence.

For example: getting to the point. "As multiple men put it, when a colleague is explaining something in the meeting, it's uncomfortable for them to listen because they don't know whether what she's going to end with is "isn't that interesting?" or "we lost the client,"" Feldhahn says. "They don't know where she's going with it, so it's hard for them to listen that way; it's actively uncomfortable."

Instead, give the conclusion up front, a few quick details, and then resist the urge to elaborate on your hard work. "They tend to trust that the person who did the work did all those details," Feldhahn says, "and they prefer not to hear them unless they ask."

Another quick fix? Being generous with your kudos—and light with your micromanagement. As the concern is outlined in the book, "Most men like to be challenged, but fear being seeing as inadequate in the process." If you can show trust in your male colleague's competence by giving them space to work out problems, and then applaud the results, you'll reap huge amounts of trust and respect in return.

Try it at a job interview, Feldhahn suggests. "A statement of appreciation for something that that man has brought to the table is quite emotionally powerful for him… You'd be seen as 'wow, someone who appreciates me—this would be a pleasant person to work with; they'd be a positive presence on the team.'"

5. Be Yourself

For the sake of focus, Feldhahn wrote about complaints from her interview subjects—"But that gives the impression that men just kept bringing up problems," she says, "and that certainly was not the balance." "Men would go out of their way to share positive things that they really appreciated and would never want a woman to change."

Among their top most valued qualities: women's interpersonal skills, listening abilities, a "sixth sense" for reading people (Feldhahn attributes this to a better ability to read body language), and in general, a unique perspective.

Feldhahn says that she heard the same story over and over from her interview subjects: that they'd been in meetings composed mostly of men that had hit a wall. "And then the [one] woman would bring up something completely different; a totally different way of looking at it," she says. "And they realized, if she hadn't been there, they would have missed this huge perspective."

That diversity is key to a thriving company, Feldhahn says, but in order to get more women into leadership roles, they need to present the appearance of "getting it" first. "That's the main reason why the book is needed," Feldhahn says. "When [men in leadership roles] are saying "Who's leadership material?", we as women, once we're equipped to know what they think looks like leadership material, we can send those signals and still have the diversity of thought. Which is in everybody's interest… We're not changing ourselves, but we're learning how to send the right signals and we're still bringing our strengths to the table."